Testing Times

It’s a typically misty November, that time of trick or treating, bonfires and fireworks. Outside the mania of exam season, coursework deadlines and the nail-biting trial run of mock exams you might think it’s a good moment for our girls to sit back and relax.

Not, however, for a growing number of our brightest girls. The first Wednesday of November has now become one of the highest stakes days of the year with an increasing number of aptitude tests and assessments being set for pupils applying for some of the most oversubscribed courses in England’s most competitive universities.

Admissions tests are nothing new. The BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test), for applicants to Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Biomedical Science and Dentistry at certain universities, has been around for many years and prior to its creation Oxford and Cambridge required candidates to sit their own assessments. The LNAT and HAT (for Law and History respectively) are also well over a decade old. For some courses in some institutions, the expectation has always been that you would need to sit some kind of test in addition to external public examinations. What is new, however, is the proliferation of different subjects for which an extra paper is now required.
To give an idea of how significant a change this is we need only look at Headington. Today 31 girls – a quarter of the year group – will sit one of 12 different admissions tests, ranging from a brief 30 minute assessment to a more in-depth two-hour 30-minute examination. Last year our girls sat just seven different admissions tests, while if we go back just a few short years to 2013, we had five girls sitting three different tests.

The increase is undoubtedly partially a result of the changes to the AS Level qualification. Universities have to find a way to differentiate between the very best candidates and without that AS grade after the first year of sixth form study, this is probably the best way to do so. Although some of these tests are not new, the removal of the AS grades as indicators means they take on increased significance. Oxford typically filters out 45-50 per cent of applicants following these tests while historically Cambridge has deselected 10 to 15 per cent. We might assume the percentage removed from the running at Cambridge prior to interview will approach that at Oxford now they no longer have the AS marks to rely on. This makes today’s tests incredibly important for these ambitious, high-achieving young women.

At Headington we make a point of avoiding putting undue pressure on our girls and often need to remind some of our high-achievers to put things in perspective and to work towards a healthy balance between study and time with their family and friends. However, there will be times when it really matters and, for some students, this is one of those moments. A good score can open up the gateway to a coveted interview for a dream university place. Of course, we must rely on those setting and marking the tests to do so in such a way that really identifies potential so we will, as always, be keeping an eye out for any unexpected omissions on the interview lists.

The numbers taking these tests remain relatively small, although our own experience shows they are growing year on year. Will this increase to a point where the majority face these kinds of tests? I think not – market forces make it unlikely for all but those courses and universities which attract the very highest calibre applicants. All that remains for now is to wish those who are sat in silence this morning, making a strong step towards their future, the very best of luck.


Caroline Jordan, Headmistress, Headington School 

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